Magnets have long been a source of fascination for we curious apes, drawing the attentions of generations of scientists, writers and philosophers. The ancient natural philosopher Thales thought that they might perhaps have a soul, prompting Aristotle to note (with perhaps a hint of snarkiness), "[he thinks] all things are full of gods." 2600 years later the rapper Shaggy 2 Dope summed up the frustrations many of today's youth feel when physics intrudes into their lives, pleading, "fucking magnets, how do they work?"
History is littered with experiments in magnetism; from Shen Kuo's successful use of magnets in navigation by 1088, to William Gilbert's investigations of Earth's magnetism published in 1600, to my own experiments in the mid-1980s, which involved inserting bar magnets into my nostrils and trying to make paperclips stick to my nose.
I wanted a magnetic nose. I still do, and who wouldn't? A magnetic nose is not something to be sniffed at (or with; removing bar magnets from sinus cavities is not a pleasant task for anyone involved). Imagine being able to sense north through a tingling in your nose, feel your mobile phone ringing in your face, or spend the night locked in a pleasant nasal embrace with your dream lover of opposite polarity. The possibilities are as endless as the variation in your mileage.
In Eastern Europe my dreams of magnetic people have supposedly become reality, for a very low value of supposition and a very tenuous definition of reality. Boys and girls with 'magnetic bodies' have been springing up all over the place, without a nose-bleed or a hidden bar magnet in sight.
The latest is Ivan, a six-year-old Croatian boy with "the ability to attract metallic objects, from coins to heavy frying pans, to his body" according to the, er, well, Guardian sadly. He follows ten-year-old Serbian girl Jelena, and her seven-year-old compatriot, Bogdan, who is supposedly banned from going near anything electrical and therefore won't be on Twitter any time soon.
All three are claimed to be magnetic, but this obviously isn't the case. Bogdan is pictured with china plates and a TV remote control plastered to his chest, while Jelena is able to 'attract' mostly-plastic cigarette lighters - not objects you would really expect magnetism to act on.
The videos are rather oddly staged, too. None of the footage shows any objects being impelled by any force, or moving without human assistance; the items are always placed carefully against the flesh, with big surfaces in contact rather than, say, the edge of a knife. Larger, heavier items are positioned at the top of the chest with the child leaning backwards, suggesting that actually a lot of the weight is pressing into the skin, not pulling against it (and both boys are generously proportioned, allowing some of the weight to rest on their tummies).
It also bugs me that the demonstrations are so unimaginatively lame. If my ejaculate somehow gave rise to a magnetic boy I can think of a thousand experiments way cooler than sticking cutlery to him. It would be nice to see him lift a cloud of iron filings off of the ground with a wave of the hand, or put a compass near him, or have him picked up by one of those electromagnetic cranes they use to pick up cars in junkyards, or make him be the first person to wing-walk on the underside of a wing.
In short, these aren't very convincing displays. Human skin is greasy and oily and stretchy and can be pretty sticky - most men at some point in their lives will experience the agony that comes when you sit naked on a leather chair in hot weather and then stand up, only to find the bottom half of your scrotum still welded to the seat. There's nothing in the videos that can't be explained by sticky skin and some careful positioning.
My dream isn't quite dead though. Thanks to the efforts of artists and scientists, magnetic people do exist. Quinn Norton wrote a fascinating essay for Wired in 2006 which describes the adventures of body modification artists Jesse Jarrell and Steve Haworth, who worked in collaboration with graduate student Todd Huffman to develop implants that would allow them to sense magnetic fields through their finger-tips.
The implants were tiny - miniscule fragments of iron encased in a silicone sheath to prevent rejection - but the results were startling. "In time, bits of my laptop became familiar as tingles and buzzes. Every so often I would pass near something and get an unexpected vibration," Norton relates, in an article that is well worth reading in full.
In Britain, graduate student (and science blogger) Jawish Hameed at the University of Reading has been living with his own magnetic implants for over two years.
His implants are tiny neodymium disc magnets inserted in the ring and middle fingers of his left hand. They are 3mm in diameter, and just 0.7mm thick, and coated in a material called Parylene C to prevent any reaction with the surrounding tissue. Doctors at the university refused to perform the surgery, so Hameed had the procedure carried out by a body modification artist, Mac McCarthy. It sounds risky, and he tells me that he did it with his family's 'minimal knowledge', "They had concerns of its long term effects. But over two years with the implants without incident has comforted them somewhat!"
The magnets are positioned in the pads of the finger-tips. Electromagnetic fields can stimulate the magnets, and their tiny movements and vibrations are picked up by the tightly-packed mechanoreceptors (nerves that sense mechanical pressure and distortion) in Hameed's fingers, allowing him to experience magnetism as little tugs and tingles.
I asked him what it felt like. "It startled me on numerous occasions when interacting with everyday things like cash machines, microwaves, speakers and even my own laptop," he says, "I was suddenly aware of the silent spin and working of the hard drive and the cooling fan. I could feel a field around microwaves from about a foot away."
His experiences then are similar to Quinn Norton's, with household objects suddenly interacting with his senses in whole new ways. "Each magnetic field induces a different sort of feeling, depending on the strength and frequency of the current that drives the electromagnetic fields," he tells me, "It is hard to describe an analogy but [it] feels like the vibrations from wind."
A simple interface, consisting of an electromagnetic coil on a wire-frame wrapped around the finger, allows a computer to deliver signals to the implants. Initial tests have been promising, although there is obviously a long way to go before anything like this could be used widely. There are many possible applications, particularly for the blind. He has been able to use the implants to receive Morse code, and has experimented with transmitting information from an ultrasonic ranger to the implants to help people 'feel' the environment around them.
He also plans to integrate the implants with his mobile phone, "I'm currently preparing a mini ring-sized wearable interface to injecting text messages from my phone." Even without the interface, he says his extra sense has practical uses: "I use it quite regularly to sense if a wire is carrying AC household current."
Check out the video below, it shows how the procedure is done.
It goes to show that where we find fairy tales, science is often not far behind. Jawish Hameed is not 'Magnetoman', but there's something quite amazing about a species that, given five wonderful senses with which to experience our world, sets about trying to build a sixth.
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